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Essay/Commentary on Panayiotis Demopoulos’s Paper
Götterdämmerung: Suicide Music and the National Self as Enemy.”
Alexander Chirila
To read Panayiotis Demopoulos’s Paper, click here.

Alexander C. Chirila PhD, teaches English and Literature at Webster University, Thailand.
His book True Immortality is available from Amazon.

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Music accompanies many of us throughout our lives, scoring our peak experiences and opening layered dimensions of meaning that connect us in subtle and provocative ways. Music is a catalyst for states of rapture and transport, a social adhesive, and a means of expressing sentiment that affects the psyche on every level.

Music may capture the spirit of an age, and in some cases evoke powerfully symbolic resonances. Can one extricate jazz from the nouveau of the 1920s? Or the Beatles from the psychedelic gyrations of the 60s? An individual familiar with music during the baroque period in Western Europe may easily imagine the sonorous tonalities of Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi. What music should one imagine attending the “death-throes” of the Third Reich?

Panayiotis Demopoulos answers this question in his essay, “Götterdämmerung: Suicide Music and the National Self as Enemy.” Demopoulos—a composer and performer himself—begins by pinpointing the archetype underlying the distorted and fatalistic rhetoric of Nazi Germany: the Hero. The Hero is an overwhelmingly familiar archetype, making appearances in virtually every medium and discourse. Even the heroes of old have found new life in today’s retellings, as new interpretations of heroism proliferate alongside entrenched narratives and associations.

The hero is ever-present in narratives throughout history, revealing an ideological substratum that maintains symbolic and psychological salience. Given the right conditions and circumstances, heroic narratives may inspire actions that ignite revolutions, create and destroy tyrants, provoke populist uprisings and champion the causes of both the oppressed and oppressors.

Associated with strength, courage, dynamic action and self-sacrifice, the hero myth is powerful precisely because it represents a changing state, a sequence of progressive movements that promises a specific and desirable resolution. This resolution may come in the form of dramatic change (the revolutionary hero), stabilization (the defending hero), expansion (the conquering hero), and transformation.

The transtemporal nature of the hero allows for its investiture into multiple—even contradictory—frames of reference. The era of Romanticism in Europe involved, among many other elements, a reinterpretation of heroism that incorporated new modalities of subjectivity and ideation.

The German Strum and Drang movement that preceded Romanticism emphasizes the irrational, melodramatic, and intensely emotional—generating protagonists that embodied a response to the rationalism of the enlightenment, the transparent opulence of aristocracy, and the perceived loss of transcendence. “The leaven which animated my existence is gone,” laments Goethe’s protagonist in The Sorrows of Young Werther, “the charm which cheered me in the gloom of night, and aroused me from my morning slumbers, is forever fled” (1774).

Germans in the Interwar Period would likely have reacted similarly to their hardships. Just beneath the collective surface boiled an intensity of national emotion that Hitler would manipulate to disastrous effect. Demopoulos points out that those “who remained patriotic Germans became, indirectly, Nazis whether they were well aware of it or not. By remaining loyal to Germany, to their community, their family’s well-being or the safety of their loved ones, they had tragically abandoned the human race.” This is an absurd thought, Demopoulos acknowledges, but “it is an accurate description of what took place.”

Not every German was prepared or wanted to become the sort of self-sacrificing national martyr that Hitler’s vision demanded. But Demopoulos suggests that “History teaches us that the national self cannot be, and was not in its Swastika guise, a flexible collection of pluralities.” The archetypal Hero is just that—but not the hero of German Nazism. “Instead of this,” Demopoulos writes, “there transpired a single, obsessive and specific ideology based on a conviction of supremacy and the birthright to eradicate disagreeing nations, opponents and undesirables—almost as a consequence of an elevated sense of duty towards the world. Evil draws men together.”

Hitler was an aficionado of Richard Wagner’s operatic works. It was in these that he sought a soundtrack to the gory climax that he must have imagined would ennoble the tragedy of his reign. “Hitler’s predilection with promoting Wagner,” Demopoulos writes, “was not an artistic cause of an enlightened leader, but a hybrid of a personal expression and a sloppy political attempt to coerce a uniform, brown-shirted and uneducated crowd into uniform high-brow thinking with philosophical pretenses.”

Richard Wagner himself wrote,

It is for Art therefore, and Art above all else, to teach this social impulse its noblest meaning, and guide it toward its true direction. Only on the shoulders of this great social movement can true Art lift itself from its present state of civilized barbarism, and take its post of honor. Each has a common goal, and the twain can only reach it when they recognize it jointly. This goal is the strong fair Man, to whom Revolution shall give his Strength, and Art his Beauty! (“Art and Revolution,” 1849).

For Wagner, “Only the Strong know Love; only Love can fathom Beauty; only Beauty can fashion Art.”

Germany was Hitler’s stage, and he doubtless saw himself answering the call to revitalize his nation with a drama that would sound unto the stormy heavens. He chose for this purpose a tragedy the likes of which had never been seen—of such melodramatically grotesque proportions that the excesses of Romanticism would appear staid by comparison. “We can be sure,” Demopoulos writes, “that Bruckner and Wagner too would have withdrawn every single note they ever wrote had they known that their work might be appropriated and used by the Nazis as it was.”

Hitler derided weakness, and his fetishizing of national suicide masqueraded as a grandiose enactment of national myth. He may have imagined a modern Ragnarök, a fiery end to a drama sacralized with real blood, in the sacred space/stage of the fatherland. The martyrs had already been sacrificed on altars bestrewn with the machinery of contemporary warfare. Old gods had been invoked in new ways, and the spectacle of it all had been arrayed in the macabre and cultish accoutrements of a civil religion.

“Somewhere in the labyrinths of Marcus Aurelius’ stoicism,” writes Demopoulos, “teenage angst and melancholy, the charm of withdrawal and obsessive introspection, general suicidal narcissism and the egocentric, consumerist culture industry of recent decades—there is an element of Nazi ideology lurking in the dark.” The historically unprecedented character of the Nazi hero was born of narratives extant in the cultural and psychological gestalt of Germany, and the impact of its manifestation during the Third Reich continues to resonate today.

The monstrous heroism expected of the German people was not only absurd, as Demopoulos suggests, but woefully simplistic: “duty and death were the same thing.” Duty, in this context, contained the ideals of loyalty, obedience, love, strength, and aggression; death contained the ideals of sacrifice, transcendence, martyrdom, and glory. Each embedded concept is actionable. The entire apparatus of Nazi propaganda, spectacle, and rhetoric was designed to enshrine this leitmotif at the forefront of German identity and expression. Duty became paramount, while death became inevitable.

In the midst of this, music played.

Hitler made possible a confluence of elements set to the accompaniment of a musical score that had been coopted to suit his purposes. “The role of music was plainly that of a muffled, funeral drum that led to the guillotine,” Demopoulos concludes. “Music, with the particular semantic weight it carried especially after Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner, was not only a propaganda tool, but a psychological barometer for the German people. In this case it coerced them into the subdued mood of a ‘Morituri Te Salutant’ mantra.”

Music can be seductive, enchanting and mesmerizing. Hitler knew this, and attempted to play the dramatic role of the noble warrior-king leading his beleaguered people valorously into the inescapable certainty of transformative death. However, the archetypal hero exists in relation to the ideals it represents; to the peoples and societies that benefit from its actions and sacrifices. There is no hero in the absence of a meaningful victory, and such victories are ultimately lent meaning by the people they serve.

The bitter irony of Hitler’s absurdist fantasy is that it was a betrayal, a promise of grandeur and guidance gone terribly astray. What began in the black-and-red swathed stadiums of the city ended among the gloomy mausoleums that would house the martyred soldiers of a stillborn empire. “Hitler himself dreamed and wished for his people that what they had failed to become—an army of suicidal faithful—would one day come to be.”

In the myths of heroic Romanticism, and in the quietly noble verisimilitude that succeeded them, there is sustained the hope and promise of return or redemption, the ultimate validation of meaning answering the sacrifice and suffering of the journey. Hitler could offer no such promises to his people. The hideous idolatry of his vision produced only a gluttonous and insatiable caricature, a malformed mistranslation of sentiments and mythologies that belonged to another spirit entirely.